Essay: Olympians: War vs. Peace in Iliad &amp Odyssey

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Peace or War in Homer

War and Peace among the Olympians in the Iliad and the Odyssey

The Olympians are not arbitrary in their preference for war or for peace in either the Iliad or the Odyssey. While it is true that they have their preferences for cities and people, who show devotion to them (such as Hera and Athena's preference for the Greeks, or Zeus' affection for the Trojans) -- it is also true that when either shows a lack of respect for the gods or for the law, the gods let loose their wrath. (Ironically, the gods and goddesses also have very personal reasons for aiding certain persons; Aphrodite, for example, gives her power to Paris so that he might keep Helen bound by his charms -- a point that Zeus observes very well in Book 4). Still, in both epics by Homer, man suffers the trials of war before he can experience a degree of peace. War acts as a kind of cleanser, so that peace and goodness can take root. (if war reflects the wrath of the Olympians, peace reflects their desire to show mercy). However, the fact that the Olympians themselves fight with one another has a very real impact on the war between men, too (after all, the gods are divided with regard to which side should win -- the Trojans or the Greeks -- in the Iliad). This paper will discuss the nature of war and peace in the Iliad and the Odyssey from the perspective of the Olympians' words (Book 24 in the Odyssey and Book 4 in the Iliad) and the context in which they are uttered.

Zeus appears to desire to bring about peace in Book 4 of the Iliad. He states to the council of Olympians (after gently mocking his wife and daughter and praising their rival Aphrodite) that he is by no means opposed to a "sweet and pleasing" peace (4.17). But he illustrates that such a peace will only come if the gods themselves are in agreement with one another. Since the gods and goddesses cannot agree amongst themselves, there is no chance for peace to be on Earth -- such, at least, seems to be what Zeus is intimating at the council. If only the Olympians can come to some sort of consensus, perhaps the problem between Troy and the Greeks can be resolved. (After all, the vanity and jealousy of the three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, is in a way the root of the conflict -- for if it hadn't been for their desire to be called most beautiful, Paris never would have been offered Helen as a gift from Aprhodite to curry his favor in voting for the most beautiful, and the war between Troy and the Greeks never would have taken place). That is the purpose of the council, as Zeus puts it: "Let us consider then how these things shall be accomplished, whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible fighting, or cast down love and make them friends with each other" (4.14-7). Clearly, Zeus is not indifferent to man's welfare and the fact that his speech ends on a note of friendship should indicate his disliking of war between men. But he is not the only Olympian. And if he does not want to start a war on Mt. Olympus, he needs to establish peace there, first.

Indeed, Zeus has to contend with his wife in order to sue for peace. Hera is determined to see Priam and his sons punished. Zeus asks what they have done to deserve her wrath: "Dear lady, what can be all the great evils done to you by Priam and the sons of Priam, that you are thus furious forever to bring down the strong-founded city of Ilion?" (4.31-3). Rather than answer her husband, king of the gods, she asserts her dignity and nobility and appeals to his sense of fairness and equality: she comes from just as good of stock as he does and therefore he should not ignore her desires. Moreover, she argues, if he wished to ruin a city beloved of her, she would not stand in his way (this is somewhat dishonest of Hera, for before the war between Greeks and Trojans is over, she will have very clearly attempted to stand in Zeus' way -- by drugging him to sleep so that she and the others might help the Greeks against Zeus' orders). The fact that Hera does not give her reasons for wishing to see Troy destroyed, however, is significant: it illustrates that the council will not be seeking a resolution -- and, thus, the war between men will continue. Zeus' words which reveal his hope for peace rather than for destruction are ignored by the committee of gods, simply because not all of the gods subscribe to the same vision or desire that he has. Zeus states that "if somehow this way could be sweet and pleasing to all of us," (4.17) perhaps the city of Troy could continue to stand and "Menelaos could take away with him Helen of Argos" (4.19). While Hera and Athena certainly want the latter, they do not want the former: they want to see Troy in ruins.

Hera continues to assert her authority as wife of the king of the gods. Zeus is willing (for the time being) to give in to her demands. She sends his daughter Athena to the battle in order to provoke the Trojans to break the truce, which has been established between the Greeks and Troy. She persuades the son of Lykaon to shoot an arrow at Menelaos so that the war might be rekindled. The arrow is shot, and Athena deflects it at the last second in order to spare Menelaos' life. (She wants war because she wants to see one side punished -- Paris' side; but she will protect those on the side she favors).

Ironically, Athena echoes Zeus' words from Book 4 of the Iliad in Book 24 of the Odyssey. She asks her father, "What is your secret will? War and battle, worse and more of it, or can you not impose a pact on both?" (24.524-7). Just as Zeus asks the council of Olympians whether there shall be more war between Trojans or Greeks or whether peace and love shall be established, so too does Athena ask her father whether war or peace is his desire for Odysseus now that he has finally returned home.

Has there been a change in Athena? Not necessarily. Odysseus is a Greek, who fought in the Battle of Troy on the side of fighters favored by Athena. Through his wanderings and his reclamation of his home (under invasion by a horde of suitors), he has proven himself worthy of the gods' affection. He has already destroyed a number of the suitors and with the help of his son now intends to slay more men. Even Zeus sees Athena's hand in all this bloodshed and wonders aloud at her inquiry. After all, she has seen "to it that Odysseus, on his homecoming, should have their blood" (24.530-1). Athena has desired to see punished the unworthy men who attempted to steal away Odysseus' wife and kingdom. Now that they have been so, and "Odysseus' honor being satisfied" (24.533), as Zeus himself points out, Athena has a mind to conclude the bloodshed and allow Odysseus a time of peace in which he might enjoy his home and his family.

Zeus demands only that he be honored as well. So Athena orders Odysseus to pray to Zeus and to seek his favor as he throws his spear into the enemy. Yet, just as Odysseus and his son are about to "cut the enemy down to the last man, leaving not one survivor" (24.588-9), and their enemy flee in fear, Athena steps in and orders them to stop: "Break off this bitter skirmish; end your bloodshed, Ithakans, and make peace" (24.593). It no longer satisfies her to see Greeks killed. but, Odysseus seeing his prey stopped in their tracks, is about to swoop down on them and annihilate them. That is when Zeus sends a thunderbolt "smoking at his daughter's feet" (24.603) -- a reminder to one and all that he is watching from above. Athena now addresses Odysseus, giving to him a title of great respectability: "Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways, command yourself" (24.606). Just as she is commanded by Zeus, so too does she command Odysseus and in turn order him to take command over himself (that is, over his passionate nature). Her directive is clear and simple: "Call off this battle now, or Zeus who views the wide world may be angry" (24.608-9).

Odysseus, of course, is more than happy to both do as Athena says and to call off the war ("his heart was glad") (24.610), and later peace is established between Odysseus and the men he was on the verge… [END OF PREVIEW]

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